Once again, the hopes of America’s space agency have been dashed by engineering issues. Sept. 3 marked NASA’s second attempt to launch the uncrewed, moon-bound Space Launch System (SLS) into outer space. Expectations were high, but leaking liquid hydrogen propellant ensured that the rocket would be grounded for (at least) the next two weeks.
While some snafus are largely unavoidable, NASA can do a far better job in anticipating mission issues and reining in astronomical costs. It’s time for policymakers to get their feet and expectations firmly planted on terra firma and protect taxpayers from the black hole of aimless space spending.
Even if NASA nails the SLS next launch, the rocket’s unmanned flight is only one part of a larger sequence of Artemis missions. Once flight paths around the moon are adequately tested, the powerful 5.7-million-pound SLS rocket will propel astronauts back to the lunar surface for the first time in more than half a century.
The importance of the SLS rocket has certainly not been lost on appropriators. Ten years ago, prevailing opinion at America’s space agency was that the rocket would take just five years to develop and cost “only” $6 billion. Development costs ballooned to $20 billion, along with a $4 billion per launch bill for taxpayers. As NASA Inspector General (IG) Paul Martin noted in a March meeting of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, the per launch price tag is “unsustainable” and “does not include development costs required to get the Artemis program to this point in time.”
SLS rocket costs are only a small quadrant in a wider galaxy of wasteful mission spending. The IG found that NASA has already spent $40 billion to get astronauts back to the moon and will likely spend close to $100 billion total on the endeavor. Even if this mission is successful and astronauts manage to build a lunar base and conduct research free from harm, the goalposts for manned missions will shift at taxpayers’ expense. Combined mission (and settlement) costs to the Moon and Mars could easily rival the ballooning interest payments on the debt, which are currently $400 billion per year.
The exorbitant space exploration bill could be justified if mankind were mired in a sci-fi dystopia and had to leave the Earth pronto. If policymakers got their heads out of the clouds, though, they’d realize that robotic exploration can complete missions at a fraction of manned exploration costs. Cambridge cosmology and astrophysics professor and astronomer royal Martin Rees rightly notes, “the practical case (for human spaceflight) gets weaker and weaker with every advance in robotics and miniaturization.”
America’s space agency seems to agree:
“Robots don’t need to eat or sleep or go to the bathroom. They can survive in space for many years and can be left out there – no need for a return trip!”
And prolonged human forays into space are not without their health risks. The risks – ranging from radiation to muscle atrophy to the psychological impacts of isolation – can squander precious lives and lead to all sorts of mission complications.
Some risks are certainly worth taking, even with taxpayer dollars. But, when there are cheaper and safer alternatives to the status quo, policymakers should take them. There’s no sense pursuing an astronomically expensive, needlessly complicated, and dangerous mission just to relive the glory days.
Officials should take one small step away from the SLS rocket and make one giant leap toward robotic exploration.
David Williams is the president of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.